Why the Church (As Such) Should Not Support the Tea Party

Why the Church (As Such) Should Not Support the Tea Party October 27, 2010

I think it’s fair to say that I have defended the Tea Party movement pretty thoroughly against what I consider unfair criticisms and caricatures in the mainstream media. I have defended the movement against allegations that it is racist and un-Christian.  I have argued that it is, in some ways, akin to a social justice movement.  And I have (in a piece published two days ago) tried to give the broader historical context for the philosophy undergirding the movement (and yes, there is one).  I find the Tea Party movement fascinating, and I am sympathetic to its concerns.

When Jeff Sharlet asks “Is the Tea Party Becoming a Religious Movement?“, however, he asks a question I have been asking for sometime as well.  (I don’t agree with the article, by the way; but he asks a question that others are asking right now as well.)

The Tea Party movement was overwhelmingly focused on economic and governance issues — government growth, deficit spending, and a broken political system — until the Restoring Honor rally.  I am also sympathetic to the Restoring Honor rally; I think Christians can and should be involved in seeking a moral and spiritual regeneration for our nation.  But it did have the effect of confusing matters a little.  Was this Tea Party 2.0?  Was the Tea Party evolving?  Was this a second wing of the Tea Party, or was it best understood as something separate entirely?

I think it would be best to hold the two things apart.  A political movement in favor of limited government, fiscal responsibility, and a more transparent and accountable government.  And a moral-religious movement to bring Christians (and anyone else) to recommit to live lives of integrity and to be salt and light in this polis and this culture.  Some might see the latter as a re-launching of the culture wars; I don’t.  I see it as standing up for fundamental Judeo-Christian values.  That’s not all that it means to be a Christian.  Being a Christian means much more than that.  But it can never mean less than that.

So like-minded conservatives should pursue Tea Party goals.  Like-minded Christians should pursue the moral and spiritual renewal of the nation.  And individual Christians who involve themselves in the Tea Party movement may well feel that they are pursuing what God calls them to do.  All of that is fine.

What should not happen, I think, is for the Church to support the Tea Party movement, or any other similar political movement.  The members of the Church can be activists for or against the Tea Party movement, and may do so on the basis of their faith as well as they understand it.  However, what distinguishes the Tea Party movement from the alternatives is a properly political belief that small government serves society best.  You can make a strong biblical argument for this position, but the Bible does not provide a clear governing blueprint.

Politics is the art of living together.  There are some rules for living together that are perfectly clear applications of scripture.  If there were two political parties, one in support of murder and another against, then the Church could absolutely side, without reservation, on the side against murder.  And the Church could say that anyone who does not agree on this point is in clear violation of scripture.  But this is not one of those cases.  I find the argument for small government to be abundantly persuasive.  But it is an argument based on political philosophy and experience; it is not an indubitable deduction from scripture.  So while I might agree, and while I might feel as though God calls me to take up the cause, I should not confuse my political philosophy with the essence of Christian theology, and I should not believe that anyone who disagrees with me is therefore un-Christian.

I know some of my fellow conservative Christians will disagree with me on this, and I hope we can do so charitably.  But I think it’s important that the Church — not the individual members of the Church, but the Church itself — maintain neutrality on political issues except where the scripture speaks with abundant clarity.  Since the Bible does not hand us a clear small-government political philosophy, the Church can stand for relevant general principles — that each side should speak fairly and charitably and honestly, and that all should seek to care for the least of these — it should not stand for small-government or big-government solutions.  Some conservative Christians believe that small government is a biblical principle.  Some believe that big-government solutions are biblically mandated.  Perhaps someday I will be convinced by one or the other.  Today, I disagree with both.

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  • not surprisingly, I will agree with you on this Tim! An issue you bring up here reminds me of something I would love to see you address. Conservative Christians have aligned with the GOP at least partly because of the Dems keeping the pro-choice plank. However, the GOP has often kept the capital punishment plank prominently in their platform. How is it OK to support someone who supports murder of a human being if you are a Christian???

    • Timothy Dalrymple

      Good idea, Dave. I’ll have to write about the death penalty soon. My view on the death penalty leans more to the Catholic than the Protestant side of conservative Christendom, but I would want to explain the pro-death-penalty side well. I don’t think it’s inconsistent to be pro-life and pro-death-penalty, though I know it appears as such. But I do oppose the death penalty, for other reasons.

    • Micha Elyi

      I think ‘murder’ doesn’t mean what you appear to think it means, Dave.

      Still, I suppose someone might oppose capital punishment for practical reasons of retributive justice such as a belief that keeping someone caged like an animal for a lifetime is more cruel and punishing than death. Also, perhaps someone might want to keep a stock of murderers around in case some politician chooses to indulge a future mob’s “give us Barrabas” lust.

      But those wouldn’t be Christian reasons, would they?

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  • Mark

    The conflation of political viewpoints with claims of biblical warrant has been problematical since at least the days of the Moral Majority in the ’70s. It’s ironic, then, that some rather harsh critics of that approach now seem to have adopted it, conflating an activist centralized government point of view with a biblical mandate, and in the process categorizing Christians who don’t accept their political point of view as purveyors of a defective understanding of Scripture.

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  • coltakashi

    One reason not to confuse a church with a political party is that making that identification will guarantee, in pluralistic America where no church has a majority of the citizens in its membership, that the political party will never win a majority vote. Do you want to excommunicate someone from your political party if they don’t want to belong to your church? The purpose of a political party is NOT to provide eternal salvation for individual members of the party, but to accomplish positive things in the mundane world of now. In a democracy, you can accomplish things if you can get agreement on the policies; you don’t need agreement on the motives for a policy. But a church is concentrated on the inner motives of action, and not on accomplishing change in government.

    A government is coercive in nature, but a coercive church is contrary to religious freedom and all other freedoms.

  • Jorge

    I don’t quite understand what “conservative christian” means. The same question can go for all the different divisions of Christ’s followers. Well, I have an idea of the answer, but it never makes much sense. Love your neighbor, love your enemy, don’t be rich in funds, give to the needy no matter what…I can go on, but it’s all basic and straight from Jesus’ mouth. There should be no divisions, just caring for humanity, without judgment, unless your perfect, then sure, go cast stones.
    All in all, there’s no way you can combine Christ’s words with modern day government.
    People would do good to read some late Tolstoy, to understand what it means to be a Christian (or just read the bible, possibly the King James version, you know, the one that says there is no other King but God?). We’ll leave it at that for now.

  • Greg Painter

    Very thought-provoking article,Timothy.I don’t think we have to worry about the Church uniting behind the Tea Party.We can’t seem to agree on anything else.